Ten years ago I was in a bar in Bamako listening to the stereo. Mostly what was coming out of it was not from Bamako or even from Mali, but from Côte d'Ivoire. A civil war in Côte d'Ivoire was by then several years old; the French had recently (and controversially) bombed the airbase in Yamoussoukro. There were a lot of young Ivoiriens in Bamako, and there was a lot of Ivoirien music. In particular, there was coupé-décalé: percussive, repetitive, bass and drum-centred, chopped and looped and propelled by chants and yells.
This early experience of coupé-décalé led gradually to a steady stream of CD purchases, mostly in Paris. I mined music stores beside the iron legs of the métro at Barbès, in the shadow of the Gare de l'Est, among the phone shops and hairdressers of Chateau-Rouge, west past Place de Clichy and in the capacious bowels of Les Halles. I have never been to Côte d'Ivoire and aside from those days in Bamako had not had much opportunity to hear coupé-décalé where it ought to be heard - on a sound system in the middle of the night in a club. I built up my CD collection more or less at random or at a shopkeeper's recommendation. Over time I encountered a series of things that seemed all somehow related to each other, but whose meanings were unclear: coupé-décalé became surrounded in my head with other mysterious terms such as zouglou, mapouka, fouka fouka, moko, sagacité, prudencia, prodada ... all of them spinning around over a landscape of percussion breaks and thunderous basslines.
A map to this mental landscape eventually arrived when I passed by the aforementioned Harmattan bookshop and picked up a copy of Coupé-Décalé: Le sens d'un genre musical en Afrique by Anicet Boka (2013).
The story of coupé-décalé is the story of a moment, and also the story of at least four countries and two decades of musical history. The moment is one of particular individuals in clubs in Paris and Abidjan in 2003, while the history moves between the Congos (Kinshasa and Brazzaville), Côte d'Ivoire and France, and encompasses the export of music between them, the development of increasingly raw instrumental and incantatory forms, the emergence of DJs and micmen as prime movers in the musical universe and the fluctuating relationship between music and politics from the early 90s to the mid-2000s. All these themes, and more, are discussed in Boka's book.
In the beginning, there was zouglou
Of course this is not the beginning; before zouglou there was highlife, before highlife the dance orchestras of the 1950s, and so on; but for present purposes zouglou offers us a point of departure. Zouglou, emerging from Abidjan university, was a movement: it spoke to students about students and it articulated their present problems and their desire for a better future. Their present problems were at that time largely perceived as being a result of the one-party state of Côte d'Ivoire's founder, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, an idol whose pedestal was gradually crumbling. Student frustration was encapsulated in an unexpected hit by Didier Bilé and Les Parents du Campus, Gboglo Koffi (1991):
Over a cyclical chant and a stomping, almost single-note bassline, Didier Bilé and his group sing of the hassles of student life, its harsh realities compared to its perceived pleasures. "Ah, student life, it's beautiful but it brings a lot of problems ... you need to enter this life to understand the student's misery, his struggles." Zouglou, they declared, had sprung from their way of asking God for relief; it was the dance which helped them, if only a little bit, to forget their problems. They were not alone in finding solace in it: sales figures attained an astonishing 90,000 copies in a few weeks (22).
Zouglou groups and artists multiplied through the 90s, scaling giddy heights at the end of the decade with Magic System's 1er Gaou (1999):
The song took over Côte d'Ivoire, West Africa (300,000 copies sold), Africa as a whole (a million copies) and France.
This success, however, appears to have been zouglou's high water mark, and no other zouglou group, nor any other production by Magic System themselves, was able to equal it. Zouglou's failure in the period which followed 1er Gaou was not merely commercial, but also imaginative and political. Previously the rebel voice of the student movement, and in particular opposed to the "Democratic Party" or PDCI of Houphouët-Boigny and his successor Henri Konan Bédié, it had the wind taken out of its sails by the decline of this party and the 1999 military coup of Robert Guéï. Formerly anti-establishment, zouglou found itself celebrating the "new broom" General Guéï and his cleansing of Côte d'Ivoire's corrupt political stables. The celebratory militaristic aesthetic of El Mutino is an emphatic example:
It is suggested that with the fall of their longstanding opponent the PDCI, the zougloumen were unsure in which direction to channel their creative energies; in Boka's words, zouglou lost its "verve contestatrice" - its underground energy, we might say - and became cast adrift from its initial raison d'être.
If zouglou at this point met a musical impasse, the country itself was about to meet a very real political one. General Guéï was swiftly replaced by Laurent Gbabgo, and unrest around the election turned to civil war as rebels in the north battled the government in the south in a conflict which became increasingly multi-dimensional and ethnically-linked.
DJs and Micmen
Curfew in Abidjan curtailed movement from place to place but lent impetus to it within bars and nightclubs: as long as you could get there before dark, you could - in fact had to - stay there til morning. One result of this was that DJs found themselves at the centre of a sort of enforced party atmosphere: clubs were staying open longer and they needed to keep the party moving.
A considerable (and valuable) part of Boka's work is dedicated to unpicking the history of DJ culture in Côte d'Ivoire. This culture was intimately linked to contemporary developments in Congolese music, which had a considerable following throughout West Africa. Traditionally Congolese hits had come in two halves: a slower, more vocal first half and a faster, harder, more instrumental second half. The music-loving public was demanding more of the second half and musicians were supplying the demand. What developed was ndombolo - Congolese rumba and soukous shorn of its more ethereal introductory verses, super-charged and directed point-blank onto the dancefloor. Characteristic examples are Koffi Olomidé's Loi (1997) and Extra-Musica's Etat-Major (2002).
At the same time, the role of singer was becoming much usurped by the atalakou, or micman: in place of song lyrics, the crowd on the dancefloor was increasingly moved by his imprecations, rather as Jamaican DJ versions had turned the focus away from singers and towards rhymes, cries, shouts, whoops and other excursions into onomatopoeia, sometimes devoid of direct sense but instead tangibly physical.
In the early 2000s, this combination of atalakou and ndombolo swiftly reaches its logical conclusion: the music contracts to a break, a hypnotic loop of drum, bass and guitar, while the DJ/micman energises the crowd over the top. Here's a example which showcases quite how simple the underlying beat could get - DJ Makenzi's Petit Mouton:
This, then, is the context: war, all night clubbing, loops, improvised chants, and the emergence of the DJ, previously "shut up in his box", onto the forefront of the musical scene (48). The DJ, at this point, was no longer merely a Disc Jockey; he was, in the phrase I first encountered at the bar in Bamako, a Distributeur de Joie. And at this point (we are now in 2003) there arrives the self-proclaimed "createur du coupé-décalé", Monsieur Stéphane Doukouré, aka Douk Saga.
Workin' it with Saga-Cité
Douk Saga - as Boka portrays him - was first and foremost an ideas man, a conceptualist. He was neither musician, nor singer, nor producer nor DJ. He liked to go out with his friends in Paris and have a good time. He had a certain dance that he did, and a certain vibe that he and his mates brought with them. And, in the fecund atmosphere of DJ culture that was swirling around at the time, that was suddenly enough. Douk Saga - along with various others who were also on the scene at the time but who for one reason or another did not end up as figureheads in the way he did - created "coupé-décalé".
Regrettably, the production which launched Douk Saga - Abidjan a eu affaire - seems to be a youtube-free zone and I don't have it in my collection, so instead let's insert here the slightly later Saga-Cité, from his debut album Héros National Bouche-Bée, in which he consolidates and glorifies his role at the head of the movement:
The notoriety which Douk Saga was soon to acquire was linked to several of his concepts, which in turn were not purely of his own invention but had their roots deep in different strata of West and Central African culture. Douk Saga was into fine and expensive attire, a feature of his personal philosophy which aligns him with the Congolese "Sapeur" movement. Turning up for a particularly infamous appearance in Abidjan in 2004, he insisted that he was kitted out with five suitcases of clothes from Gaultier, Versace and Hugo Boss's 2008 to 2012 collections - "they're not on the market yet but us, we've got them already" (79). As his videos declare, he was not just into labels but also fat cigars, flash Mercs and wads of cash. His crew, the Jet-Set, had ironically and with a characteristic love of wordplay baptised themselves the "SDF" - an acronym commonly used to designate the homeless, those who were "Sans Domicile Fixe", but which they recoded to refer to their proximity to bundles of money: they were "Sans Difficultés Financières". As one observer, DJ Djo Papy, was to put it, they drank enough champagne to keep their teeth white (67).
At their appearances, Douk Saga and his crew - Le Molare, Boro Sanguy, Lino Versace and others - reversed the traditional sponsoring of the griot, in which singers and performers were blessed with money by the appreciative audience. Instead it was they - the "ambianceurs" - who gave out suitcases full of cash to their audience. This practice they referred to as "travaillement" - a formerly non-existent term, derived from the verb "travailler", which we might imperfectly render as "workin' it" as distinct from "working". In that linguistic distinction as well as in their cash distribution practice, the Jet-Set were breaking the manacles that society had forged to lock the acquisition of money to the effort of work. It was suggested that the lack of financial difficulty they experienced was not unrelated to cheque and card fraud or other such pastimes (73). Among the several etymologies offered of the name coupé-décalé itself, this one is prominent: following a successful swindle, you "cut and run" to a place where you can benefit in tranquility from your ill-gotten gains.
In April 2004, at the Palais de Culture in Abidjan, Douk Saga promoted an event at which he intended, in his guise as chief of travailleurs, to give out 2 million CFA. A somewhat chaotic scene ensued, in which over-crowding, general hysteria and a power cut saw the President of the Jet-Set robbed and his promotion sabotaged (111). This kerfuffle may be taken as symbolic of the controversy which developed around coupé-décalé in general and the practice of travaillement in particular. Journalists issued stark warnings of moral degeneracy among the youth. Kids were stealing money from their parents or from other people and using it to swank around nightclubs and Douk Saga himself was to blame. He was, said one detractor,
visibly far from being a repository of popular or ancestral wisdom. He has no mastery of prose, rhythm, language or syntax. He's not particularly elegant of speech, he doesn't have a honeyed tongue despite what his flatterers tell him. He has no respect for the tradition which teaches us that money is earned by the sweat of one's brow. He merely mocks it by promoting his concept of travaillement, throwing banknotes into the crowd. (112)
On est où là?
Despite the personal nature of these polemics, the tensions for which Douk Saga and his movement served as a lightning rod had grown up within Ivoirien popular music over several years. A central symbol in this story is the rupture between coupé-décalé and zouglou: while the older movement was political, a self-described "danse philosophique" and a plea for a better world, the newer one was pure escapism; and while the older movement had cried out for a political solution to political problems, the newer one had responded to civil war with the descent (or ascent, depending on which perspective you take) of moral and lyrical sense into non-sense. Boka likens the DJ in coupé-décalé to the captain of a spaceship, transporting his dancefloor's occupants to a galaxy far, far away ...
For several zouglou artists, the ascendancy of the DJ was an unwelcome development. Certainly, there were detractors of all kinds of popular music who lumped both zouglou and coupé-décalé together as music for young hooligans ("la racaille"). Eminent zougloumen, however, were keen to point out the difference between a singer and a DJ and voice their distaste at the confounding of the two functions. This view was central to Petit Denis's 2005 release, Galoper (172):
Likewise, Espoir 2000's singer Pat Saco complained that "a real singer makes a real effort with his songs", whereas the DJ movement was essentially ephemeral, empty vessels but plenty noise. If he was to work in that manner, he said, he could compose "at least 36 songs every week" (165).
This apparent opposition between DJs and zouglou singers did not prevent them from working together on occasion, however - witness the collaboration of NCM and Erickson le Zoulou on Pourquoi Nous:
Nor did it overcome the fact that many of the same producers were arranging the beats for both singer and DJ-driven music: notably David Tayoro, who was responsible for zouglou classics such as Asec-Kotoko (Poussins Chocs) and 1er Gaou, but also for parts of DJ Jacob's Carton Rouge and Abidjan y a le show; and Koudou Athenase, whose credits stretched from Gboglo Koffi to Erickson le Zoulou's Souzana and DJ Jacob.
In a further blurring of simple boundaries, much of the conspicuous consumption which Douk Saga and the Jet-Set seemed to epitomise had already predated them in the form of prodada, a concept popularised by the influential DJ Don Mike le Gourou. As Don Mike had observed, the DJ's relationship with his crowd was one of incitement: not merely to dance, but to express themselves, or rather express what they were not but might have been. Prodada, said Don Mike,
is artifical self-expression. It's showing oneself as one isn't, as one would have wanted to be. ... The expression came [to me] as I analysed the behaviour of certain customers. In nightclubs I saw people spend over 300,000 CFA in an evening, but at the end of the night they needed to borrow money to get a taxi home... (56)
The atalakou incited his customers to dance, to drink, to spend money and to display themselves as more than they were. Don Mike himself, however, seems to have felt that Douk Saga's antics had swung the pendulum too far in this direction, and he reverted on himself with an opposing concept, that of prudencia. Danger, he announced, came from all sides in all forms and the traveller through life - unlike the travailleur - needed to be prudent to avoid its pitfalls. Prudencia, he said, perhaps in implicit criticism of coupé-décalé, was "not just a dance".
While Don Mike "le concepteur" was busy conceptualising prudence in a new dance form, for others zouglou was still the answer:
None of this surprised Douk Saga: as he observed in one of his often-repeated catch-phrases, "Les gens n'aiment pas les gens mais les gens avancent; j'aime les jaloux, j'aime les méchants."
As a footnote to these various polemics, we might observe that zouglou's criticism of coupé-décalé had prefigured itself in an entertaining attack on hip hop by Petit Yode and Enfant Siro. Zouglou, they insisted, was real ghetto music, while rappers were more interested in "drinking champagne and rolling in big trucks" (179). The song ends with a satirical example of such rapping, performed in a fake American accent:
The Saga Continues
In the bar in Bamako, if it wasn't coupé-décalé on the stereo, it was that year's zouk hit, Laisse parler les gens - a France-Africa-Antilles mega-collaboration between Passi (of Ministère AMER), Congolese singer Cheela, Jocelyn Labylle and Kassav's Jacob Desvarieux:
As Boka points out, this massively successful piece of multi-cultural Francophone pop borrows an Ivoirien proverb, which had previously appeared in Espoir 2000's Serie C: "If you take the road of 'I don't care', you'll end up in the village of 'if I'd known'."
Regardless of Espoir 2000's critiques of coupé-décalé, this borrowing encapsulates the effect the upstart genre had on Ivoirien music - propelling it out of the maquis of Abidjan and into the world at large. The video of African Connection's Ami Oh (2004) shows little dancing stick figures all over the weather map of France, while (in the words of the journalist Jean-Michel Denis) only one small enclave held out, like Asterix's Gaul, against the inexorable advance of Abidjan's music. This final frontier was the unattainable "temple of ndombolo", Kinshasa itself (89).
Reflecting on his role as creator, Douk Saga paused to ask that he be given a medal for his contribution to Ivoirien music. This honour was never literally forthcoming, and the hero died, after a period of illness, in 2006. His posthumous award was granted not by President Laurent Gbagbo but by DJ Don Mike, who name-checked him among the roll-call of musical greats in La Médaille de Merite.
Meanwhile, through the mid-2000s, coupé-décalé continued to mutate and populate Abidjan's clubs with dance forms inspired mostly by sex - Sentiment Moko, Festiboulance - or by current affairs - China's role in Africa, Guantánamo, Bird Flu, Toxic Waste.
A trawl through the archives of zouglou shows that the distinction sometimes drawn between the two musical forms is not as watertight as one might be inclined to believe: in their rougher, micman- and breakbeat-led second halves, a lot of zouglou tunes could easily be mistaken for coupé-décalé. I've already cited the example of NCM's Pourquoi Nous above; here is another of my favourites, Pacific's Sounkraya, which euphorically destroys dancefloors wherever it goes.
For a close-up of the Congolese perspective on the evolution from soukous to coupé-décalé, meanwhile, it is worth comparing the original of Aurlus Mabélé's Femme Ivoirienne with its remix:
(Thanks to: Hugo Mendez; Joanna Dunis; CD shop assistants too many to mention.)